Insights and opinions on Information Technology from George Tomko, a veteran CIO turned renegade consultant.


Is the CIO a “pinnacle” position?

By George M. Tomko

I think it is a healthy exercise, from time-to-time, to pressure test what you are doing, why you are doing it and would you keep doing it?

In conversations with CIOs in my consulting practice and when I network with them in forums and interest groups, I like to bring up the question of “knowing what you know now, would you still be in the profession that you chose years ago?”.

I am glad to see that, for most people to whom I ask the question, the answers I get back are that there are few or no regrets. Where there are issues, it appears that it is not so much the profession but more the environment that a particular executive works in.

The strategic CIO of today, in my opinion, is a well-educated and experienced practitioner of technology and business management. While having a rich background in technology management, they were able to build an experience portfolio that included stints in other functions i.e. engineering, finance, operations, sales, etc. They know about business process management, Lean and Six Sigma and have led transformation initiatives.

There is also a high degree of portability. Deploying ERP, SOA, BPR and other alphabet-soup solutions are generally skills and experiences that are transportable across many industries. Portability plays well — we have choices — maybe, more than others.

You do not have to go back too many years to the day when there was no such thing as a ‘CIO’. I remember being a young CIO in 1999 when the average tenure in such positions was about 18 months. There were a number of reasons for this. Organizations were adjusting to the idea of having IT represented by its own executive and sitting at the management “table” as a peer. Expectations had to be adjusted to fit the realities of business, relationships had to be formed and galvanized. CIOs had to be given a fair and reasonable chance to deliver the “goods” in the wake of some high profile systems project failures.

Successful CIOs are also a resourceful bunch, knowing how to get things done in organizations where the other executives have little understanding, patience or the desire to increase their understanding of IT. This segregating or isolating approach to IT and the person who runs it has, perhaps, cost CIOs a clear shot at the CEO chair.

The more comments I read about the connection, or lack thereof, to getting to the CEO chair, the more that I think about the fact that the CIO is often a pinnacle position in its own right. Thus, it has many of the same characteristics that one might find in a CEO role. I think that what happens to a lot of us is that we ultimately move on to starting our own companies (or become independent consultants) and become CEOs that way. Or, we run the IT function as a company within a company. Most IT functions have their own engineering, legal, finance, regulatory, HR, and sales/marketing components. Ultimately, there are many outlets for a CIO to satisfy the drive to lead and accomplish great things.

In my own travels, I have seen where a number of people have made the move from CIO to COO. I think that is an outstanding development which totally makes sense to me. I have felt for a long time that the CIO could, over time, wind up leading supply chain in a number of industries, in addition to IT. That would seem a natural building block to the COO.

But, it gets better. Two years ago, Kim Nash, currently Senior Editor of CIO Magazine and, wrote a story about CIOs becoming CEOs for Baseline magazine. She found that “It’s certainly not a conventional way to the top but there are more who have made that leap than you might think. At that time, I’d found 56 who’d done it recently….with the majority at non-technology companies.” Her article can be found here.

So, while this is certainly good news for CIOs with aspirations, it is more likely that successful CIOs are at the pinnacle. Notice that I did not use the word ‘plateau’. This is due to the fact that a wealth of portable skills and experiences lead to industry and geographic cross-over possibilities and greater scope positions at larger, more expansive multi-national organizations.

At the end of the day, the CIO has become a true C-level executive, in many cases worthy of changing out the “I” for another letter (“O”, “E”, “F”, “A”).

George M. Tomko is CEO and Executive Consultant for Tomko Tek LLC, bringing game-changing knowledge and experience for transformational analysis and decision-making; planning and execution of enterprise-wide initiatives; outsourcing; strategic cost management; service-oriented business process management; and technology investment assessment. He can be reached at or on Twitter @gmtomko. Profile: